Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

In Deserted Libyan City, A Family Holds On To Home

A man walks past a shattered building in Ajdabiya.
A man walks past a shattered building in Ajdabiya.

In Libya, the focus has been on the continued siege of the western town of Misrata.

But there is also sporadic fighting in the east between rebels and forces loyal to the government of leader Moammar Gadhafi. The front line there is outside the city of Ajdabiya.

A bustling city just a few weeks ago, Ajdabiya now has the feel of a ghost town. Chunks of concrete, twisted light poles and other debris litter the streets. Much of that was dragged there to slow the traffic, of which there is very little these days.

A few knots of fighters hang out on street corners. They don't look up at the sound of a jet overhead — the NATO planes circling on their no-fly zone patrols.

In recent weeks, the eastern front of the conflict between rebel fighters and Gadhafi's forces has moved back and forth between this city and the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf to the west. Ajdabiya has strategic value because it's the point where two major highways intersect. From here, it's just 100 miles up the coast road to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, while the desert highway offers a shortcut to Tobruk and the Egyptian border.

Sticking It Out

But with much attention shifted to the fighting in Misrata and other western towns, Ajdabiya feels overlooked these days.

Most of the homes on its streets are empty, their owners having fled farther east to get out of the crossfire. Behind a few doors, though, some families are sticking it out.

Zamzam Saleh's household is one of them. She lives here with her husband and a dozen children. The family has stayed in Ajdabiya, even during the terrifying days when forces loyal to Gadhafi stormed the city. Saleh says she worries most about her children, who still can't sleep at night, nodding off only after sunrise.

"It's really terrifying for the children," she says. "They can't go out and play anymore. They're afraid of rockets, so they're always hiding inside the house."

Her husband, Mohammed, says the entire city became a battleground when government forces invaded. But even though those units were pushed back, a sense of danger has remained.

"After 5:00 we don't go out of the house," he says. "There were rocket attacks that fell on the house next door. It's scary."

He says they get some food from the Red Crescent, mainly for the children, but it's not enough. Sometimes they're able to get some canned goods from the city's western gate, where rebel fighters keep an eye out for pro-government forces.

'In Limbo'

Mohammed says his main wish is for someone — either the rebels or Gadhafi's forces — to take charge and end the uncertainty. There's not much sign that this family feels especially connected to either Gadhafi or the rebel movement.

"We're in limbo," he says. "The rebel leaders are all in Benghazi. From the beginning, no one came to check on the families in Ajdabiya. We've been forgotten."

Zamzam agrees it's been hard, but she says neighbors have rallied together in a show of community spirit that has reminded them why they like this desert crossroads.

"It's an area with strong community where people work together," she says. "When we were under siege and there wasn't enough food and water, people came together. Everybody shared what they had. The crisis gave us a real sense of unity."

And so far, there are no pictures from this family on the city's western gate, where Ajdabiya residents have posted photos of missing loved ones. The Salehs hope it stays that way.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.